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Elly De La MVP?

Do you know who the youngest National League MVP in MLB history is?  If you said Johnny Bench (who won the award at the ripe age of 22 back in 1970), then congratulations!  You know MLB history like the back of your hand.  At 22-years-old himself, Elly De La Cruz will never surpass the Reds Hall of Fame catcher as the youngest NL MVP ever, but if he can keep up his current pace, then De La Cruz could accompany Mr. Bench.

It’s hard to believe, but just a couple weeks ago, there were some not-so-quiet Reds fans stomping on the bleachers for De La Cruz to be sent back to AAA.  It wasn’t all that crazy either.  His hitting stats were poor even though he had an entirely unsustainable .500 batting average on balls in play, he was striking out in nearly half of his plate appearances, and the early returns as a fielder at shortstop were horrifying.  A small sample size to be sure, but the Reds don’t exactly have a lot of room for error in a stronger-than-expected NL Central.  Thankfully, a lot’s changed.

In his first nine games this season, De La Cruz was overmatched.  Since then, he’s been en fuego.  In his last thirteen games, De La Cruz has six home runs and six stolen bases.  He’s striking out less and walking more, and his fielding has improved.  He’s been everything Reds fans have been clamoring for – the whole enchilada.

Elly broke out of his early-season slump in a big way against the Milwaukee Brewers.  In the first game of the series, De La Cruz hit two home runs, one of which was a 450 ft bomb to dead center.  The other?  It took him just 14.96 seconds to circle the infield for an inside-the-park home run.  No big deal.  In one game, De La Cruz reminded the entire baseball world why he was such a renowned prospect.  There are a handful of baseball players who can hit for that kind of power and have that kind of speed.  Fewer could do that in the same game.  Only one could do that from both sides of the plate: Elly De La Cruz.

Something clicked for Elly in that game.  Since then, he’s collected a hit in a third of his at-bats and he’s slugged his way to the top of the NL leaderboards in a number of categories.  Check it out:

  • OBP – .412 (9th in NL)

  • SLG – .639 (4th in NL)

  • OPS – 1.051 (4th in NL)

  • Runs – 20 (4th in NL)

  • Hits – 26 (t-9th in NL)

  • Total Bases – 46 (t-6th in NL)

  • HR – 6 (t-2nd in NL)

  • RBI – 15 (t-9th in NL)

  • SB – 10 (t-1st in NL)

Crucially though, he’s kept the Reds afloat as their injury-riddled roster works its way through a difficult first slate of series.  He’s been as valuable as any player in baseball, but valuable enough to win NL MVP?  It might be a long shot, but if he keeps up this pace, then why not?

Currently, De La Cruz is on-pace for a 40-home-run/80-stolen-base season.  If he manages to reach those numbers, he’d be just the sixth player – ever – to enter the hallowed 40/40 club.  He’d also be the first to go 40/80, just barely eclipsing Ronald Acuña Jr.’s incredible 40/70 season last year.  And at 22-years-young, De La Cruz would tie Alex Rodriguez as the youngest players to achieve the feat.  In a nutshell, that’s special.

But would it be enough for MVP?  That’s harder to predict.  Mostly because Mookie Betts still exists and he’s hitting like an unholy combination of Joe Morgan and Barry Bonds, but maybe the odds aren’t as stacked against Elly as we think.  Betts might be the runaway favorite at this point, but there’s an important caveat – his team, the Dodgers, are stacked.  More importantly, he also has an MVP-caliber teammate who will likely siphon off a few votes here and there: Shohei Ohtani.

Now that the gambling stink that surrounded Ohtani at the start of the year has worn off a bit, the MLB world is getting back to gawking at the singular talent that is the Japanese Babe Ruth.  Though his stats aren’t quite at Betts’ level (yet), Ohtani is carving up opponents with regularity too.  He’s leading the league in batting average, hits, doubles and total bases.  Along with Freddie Freeman, they’ve made the Dodgers the scariest lineup in the National League.  But sometimes, when you have two MVPs (or maybe three) on your team, you actually have none.

To an extent, it happened last year.  Acuña took home the award, but things might have turned out differently if Betts (the 2nd-place finisher) didn’t have to deal with Freeman (the 3rd-place finisher) collecting a healthy 54% voting share.  As confusing and ironic as it seems, sometimes being on a stacked roster can actually hinder your chances of winning the MVP.  This bodes well for De La Cruz.  The Reds roster might not be decrepit like the Athletics or the White Sox, but between their inconsistency, youth, and injury issues, De La Cruz and the Reds will have to overcome a ton of adversity to reach the playoffs – and we know baseball writers love a good story.

The biggest advantage going for Elly is the relative lack of production around him in the lineup.  Outside of De La Cruz, only Spencer Steer is hitting at an above-average clip, and even he’s had a drop off from his scorching hot start.  Jake Fraley has good looking stats, but he’s a part-time player right now.  Even the pitching has been hit-or-miss.  But through all the Reds’ struggles, Elly continues to give the Reds a boost with his unique combination of power and speed.

Can Elly keep up this current pace and become the first Red to win the MVP since Joey Votto in 2010?  Can he become the first Red to reach the 40/40 club and tie Bench as the youngest NL MVP in baseball history?  Can the Reds overcome their myriad deficiencies to capture the NL Central crown?  It’s not impossible, but it’s pretty close.  But given everything we’ve seen, don’t we realize that when it comes to De La Cruz impossible is nothing?  I’d give Elly winning the NL MVP about the same odds as a player hitting two home runs from both sides of the plate this year…oh wait, he’s already done it.

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